In its opening scenes, the surreal horror film “Vivarium” looks like it’s aiming to be a slick, simplistic social satire. The story begins with hip young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) going house-shopping in a clean, modern suburban subdivision. The plot thickens when they can’t find their way out, because every home and street looks the same. Clever, right?
But before long, director Lorcan Finnegan (who also co-wrote the story with screenwriter Garret Shanley) shows he has more in mind than just skewering conformity. Like David Lynch’s cult classic “Eraserhead,” “Vivarium” depicts settling down and starting a family as an inescapable nightmare.
When they arrive at the sprawling, empty housing development dubbed “Yonder,” Gemma and Tom poke fun at the antiseptic decor and sickly green color scheme. (“I love the single hue,” Tom jokes.) As the days drag by and they remain stuck in Yonder, the couple becomes irritable and physically ill … and that’s before they find a baby at their doorstep.
The boy — some kind of synthetic creation, possibly alien — grows rapidly, speaks in a creepily deep voice, repeats verbatim things his “parents” say, barely seems to understand basic human concepts, and emits a high-pitched scream whenever he wants something. He’s a monstrous caricature of what raising children is like.
“Vivarium” is low on gut-level scares because this isn’t that kind of movie. Instead, Finnegan offers a vision of domesticity as a soul-sucking grind, done for the benefit of malevolent overlords. His film chills the mind more than the spine.